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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

King Crow - Michael Stewart

King Crow by Michael Stewart is definitely a book I'll be reading again. Only good books are worth re-reading, and this is a good book. It's also a hard book to review without giving too much away, but it's vital to read this book without knowing what's coming - even if, by the middle of the book, you find yourself dreading what might be coming...

You know from the start that the central character, Paul Cooper, is a lonely boy, introverted and inhabiting a world of his own on quite a profound level. Even engaging with the reader, he's a slippery character, hiding behind his obsession about birds right from the first line:

'When I look at people, I wonder what sort of birds they are.'

He distances himself from other people in every way he can, even introducing himself by his surname, and not because he's from an upper class public school either. Far from it. Despite his determination to distance himself from the world he finds himself in, he draws your sympathy from the start, even though (or perhaps because) Paul is a strange mixture of dispassionate observation and fear, and uses one to hide from the other. He is so afraid of the world that he literally switches his mind to thinking of the facts he knows about the feathered creatures he is so obsessed with as a means not just of emotional escape, but trying to 'block out' the world and physically hide in his thoughts. As though he believes that if he thinks about birds, people won't see him - like a small child who thinks you can't see him if he puts his hands over his eyes:

‘Then he says to me, - Yeah? Want some, new boy?
I feel his breath on my face. Focus on his blazer, a darkening sky. The finches fly off and are replaced by starlings, triangular wings, twisting and soaring, a swirling black cloud […] Remember to breathe. Think about starlings. Think.’

When he meets Ashley, a boy who is the opposite of Paul with his cool confidence, you know everything is about to change. This is where I have to tread carefully as Paul's story needs to be read to really appreciate this excellent book.
Stewart's prose is somehow deceptively simple and yet beautifully poetic, and is often in the immediacy of present tense, and the story unfolds through a character depicted with a rare psychological truth. Paul hides behind shrugs and his quest to see ravens as he observes the world and his own story as it unfolds, and that's the key way the magic of this book works for me.
Stewart manages to convey Paul's matter-of-fact observation of the world he inhabits and the often shocking events in beautifully poetic prose to reveal the story, and interweaves Paul's experience of nature and particularly his constant sliding into his obsessively ornithological world to create a refreshingly different book, and an intensely poetic and compelling one.

This is a compelling read, and even if you see what's coming, you'll want to read this book again.

~

King Crow by Michael Stewart is available in all good libraries and bookshops, in paperback and Kindle, and from Amazon.

Michael Stewart is from Salford and now lives in Yorkshire and has won several awards. King Crow is his debut novel and won the Not The Booker Prize 2011. You can find out more about Michael Stewart here.

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